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Life as an NHS nurse in the 1950s: ‘Patients never had to wait on trolleys’

Posted on 25/06/2018 by


Laurel Robertson, 89, was born in St Lucia. Part of the Windrush generation, she came to Britain in 1958 and joined the NHS, working in A&E at St James’s, Balham, and later in occupational health

Istarted my training as a midwife in St Lucia. Then I saw an advertisement saying that they were desperate in London to have qualified persons to help out, so I came here in 1958, when I was 20, and trained for three years at Mount Vernon hospital in Northwood.

As a trainee in St Lucia, there were a lot of restrictions. You had to jump out the window to see your boyfriend, that sort of stuff. Things were strict over here, too: we weren’t allowed to go to parties, so we had to leave one window open and jump out. I have no idea what would have happened if we got caught – we were too well organised for that.

On the ward, there was no time for tittle-tattle. Our patients were very well looked after, with bedside nursing, and we carried out our duties efficiently. There were no disposable utensils, we had to wash bedpans in the sluice. We couldn’t wear uniforms outdoors because it might cause infection. Visitors were not allowed to bring food to their relatives in hospital. There was no shortage of nurses and patients never had to wait on trolleys to occupy a bed.

In 1988 there was a big train crash in Clapham Junction. We had nearly finished our shifts when the emergency bell rang. There were quite a lot of injuries and they all came in together. That was the worst situation I ever had. But we coped.

I retired 18 years ago but I’m still active. I’m part of the Diamond Club, which is a group for older people in Lewisham promoting health and wellbeing. And I sit on the Lewisham Pensioners Forum, which campaigned very hard to save the local hospital.

The NHS is in a bad state. Last November, I was admitted as a patient at King’s College hospital for two weeks. There were no beds for me at the start so I spent two days on a trolley in casualty. In my day, we did the nursing and we did all the treatment; now they’ve got auxiliaries who are trained to take blood pressure, temperature and so on. The whole field of bedside nursing is gone. Sisters sit in front of computers and do the office work. That bond between the nurse and the patient has disappeared.

That said, I would be very pleased if more young people wanted to become nurses. We never had a shortage of nurses in my day. Young people wanted to do it and they did it very well, but today they’d rather go push a pen in an office than go clean a bedpan or look after someone. I’m afraid that nursing has lost its value.

• Life as an NHS nurse in the 1940s: ‘You have to forget about yourself’

Source: The Guardian